Critical social work education as democratic paideía: Inspiration from Cornelius Castoriadis to educate for democracy and autonomy

In Christine Morley, Phillip Ablett, Carolyn Noble & Stephen Cowden (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Critical Pedagogies for Social Work. London, UK: Routledge. pp. 176-188 (2020)
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The question of education for democratic ‘empowerment and liberation’, and how this might guide pedagogic practice is seldom raised and extremely challenging for social work education today. This chapter takes up the proposition that social work, through its educational practices, ‘can’ deliver on its promise of ‘democratic practice’ if democracy is understood as a process and not a predefined product. We argue that such a process and its embodiment in institutions cannot exist without the formation of radically democratic subjects, people (including social workers) capable of questioning dominant social forms and of creating new forms and practices. Accordingly, this chapter explores the educational implications for social work of the work of the revolutionary theorist, Cornelius Castoriadis (1921–1997). Castoriadis’ philosophy accords a crucial role to democratic pedagogy (paideía) as an essential form of praxis in the creation of a radically democratic, egalitarian and sustainable society. In particular, we examine his idea (against (neo)liberal individualisation) that ‘autonomy’ is simultaneously an individual and social project that begins in, and is always dependent upon, individual and collective self-reflection. This argument is illustrated by examples from the authors’ classroom experiences of teaching both critical reflection and critical social theory to social work students in Australian universities, on the premise that both are indispensable in social work education as a democratic practice for ‘empowerment and liberation’. The chapter outlines a brief discussion of Castoriadis, his main ideas and the pedagogic dimensions of his philosophy before bringing the latter to bear on the authors’ teaching experiences.



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Phillip Ablett
University of the Sunshine Coast

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